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What It's Going to Take to Claw Back Middle Class Wealth From the 1%

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- 1953 days ago -
If you truly care about economic justice, then you've got to worry about the precipitous decline of labor unions in the United States.

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Roger G (154)
Sunday February 10, 2013, 1:21 pm
noted, thanks !

Kit B (276)
Sunday February 10, 2013, 1:41 pm
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When unions decline, inequality soars and we all lose.

If you truly care about economic justice, then you've got to worry about the precipitous decline of labor unions in the United States. Just take a look at these two charts. The first shows the rise and decline of union membership in the private sector from the depths of the Great Depression to today. You can clearly see that unions were a very big deal from the mid-1930s to the early 1980s. By 1953, more than one out of three American workers were members of private sector unions. That means there was a union member in nearly every family.

Through the late 1950s and 1960s, the percentage of union members declined, but the absolute number continued to increase, peaking at nearly 21 million members in 1979, (largely due to the influx of public sector workers during the 1960s and 70s). Then the decline accelerated as the share of union members fell by half between the mid-1970s and the early 1990s. (If we include public employee union members, the current rate is 11.3 percent.)
***See Charts and graphs at Visit Site***

The second chart traces the share of our national income grabbed by the top one percent of U.S. households. It's basically the inverse of the unionization chart. When unions were at their strongest, inequality was the lowest. In 1928, the top one percent hauled off 23.94 percent of all U.S. income. As unions grew, the income share for the richest dropped to less than 10 percent. And as unions declined, the income share going to the wealthiest shot right back up to 1928 levels.

t's not a coincidence. When unions are strong, they bargain for higher wages and benefits. At the same time, non-union employers increase wages and benefits to attract qualified workers and prevent unions from coming in. Also, unions work for legislation that benefits middle- and low-income people (unemployment benefits, minimum wage, progressive taxation, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security etc.). Overall, those efforts shift income from the top to the middle and bottom of the income ladder. (For more information on inequality, please see my new book, How to Make a Million Dollars an Hour: Why Hedge Funds Get Away with Siphoning Off America's Wealth).

What Happened to Unions?

While working with the labor movement over the past 35 years, I've heard myriad explanations for the decline: unions are not democratic enough; they don't know how to organize the community; they're victims of globalization; they are too bureaucratic; they don't work hard enough in politics; they don't embrace young people and minorities...and so on. While many of these problems are real, I don't believe they explain what's really going on -- namely that unions and the rest of us are on the losing side of a gigantic class war.

The top one percent understands that unions are the only institution in America that stands in the way of the rich getting richer. As a result, the assault on unions has been deliberate and merciless. Step by step, labor laws have been weakened so that organizing new members has become nearly impossible. For example, employees get fired right and left for organizing activities in violation of labor law. But, employers are rarely charged by the National Labor Relations Board. And when they are, the only penalty is that the discharged workers get back their jobs and back-wages -- minus what they earned in the meantime.

Republican-dominated state governments are attacking public employee unions and further weakening labor protections. Almost every day we see laws proposed that would weaken the ability of unions to engage in political action. The goal is clear -- zero percent unionization.

Unions, of course, know all this and have been pressuring Congress for years to reform labor law. In fact, they were sure they could pass the Employee Free Choice Act (which would greatly facilitate union organizing) when the Democrats controlled the White House and Congress from 2008 to 2010. It didn't even come up for a vote.

What is to be done?

Right now, there are hundreds of small worker centers all over the country helping unorganized workers deal with problems at work. These proto-unions are staffed by young activists are full of hope. Some major unions also are deeply engaged in community organizing, trying to build large coalitions that support worker rights, increases in the minimum wage, and eventually, unionization. Nearly every union is fighting to prevent state governments from destroying public-sector unions and creating right-to-work-for-less states. And of course, unions continue to throw themselves, heart and soul, into electing Democrats. And yet, the decline continues.

I wish I had a dime for everytime someone like me attempts to chart a new path for labor. We always start with talk about building a movement, rebuilding class power, fighting for economic justice, working with and on behalf of the poor and the unemployed, uniting with environmentalists, linking with workers in developing nations like China, Brazil and India...and on and on. While all of these actions are important, I don't see how they will add up to a new movement with the power to take on our greedy elites.

So here's my two cents worth: Americans are furious with Wall Street. We're living through a crash created by and for financial elites, and the elites are coming out of it unscathed. Instead of Wall Street paying for the damage it has done, the rest of us are now being asked to pay with cuts in Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and many other programs that benefit middle- and lower-income groups. Occupy Wall Street proved that the American people were, at the very least, sympathetic to a movement that targets financial elites, just like the Populists and the Progressive movements did more than a century ago. A similar movement needs to be ignited and led by unions.

The nurses union (National Nurses United) is on the case, leading the charge for a “Robin Hood Tax” that would put a small fee on buying and selling all stocks, bonds, derivatives, futures, etc. The rest of the labor movement should join them.

But it will take more than unions. Every progressive group in the country should join the effort to bring high finance to heel. It's time for all of us to realize that inequality did not fall from the sky. It's not an act of god. It's not the result of globalization (look at Europe where unions are larger and inequality is smaller). It's the result of deliberate policies made by and for our economic elites, especially those on Wall Street.

Those same policies can be changed. But only if we have the persistence and the guts to take on the powerful financial vampires, sharks and hooligans that now lord over us. It will take nothing short of forging a long-term movement of unions in coalition with enviros, worker centers and every kind of progressive group imaginable. Good luck to all, especially the young activists who must light the way.
***Links and more information to include charts and graphs within article at VISIT SITE***

By: Les Leopold | alternet (executive director of the Labor Institute in New York)


Theodore Shayne (56)
Sunday February 10, 2013, 4:42 pm
Noted. There are several things that need to be done to restore fairness and equity. Glass-Steagall's reactivation; closure of Delaware type tax loopholes allowing the 1% to pay little or not taxes; redefinition of capital gains into all streams of income being taxed at a fair rate according to tax bracket as gross income; secession of 17% fee on every US dollar the FED issues and secession of payment to international controllers who control the money through the FED. The Fed should be controlled by the US Treasury and not the other way around. Of course a secession of international meddling through lobbyists by foreign governments would help as would major campaign finance reform and government spending. Take care about what you wish for with unions. The biggest ones are in bed with the government in some venue or other. They are all about control by their own 10% and it is about political influence and not the welfare of their union members. Some unions are necessary such as the grow farm workers union and those in the fast food industry. Just some food for thought.

pam w (139)
Sunday February 10, 2013, 5:28 pm
" But only if we have the persistence and the guts to take on the powerful financial vampires, sharks and hooligans that now lord over us."

+++++++++++++++++ And there's the problem. Americans are lazy and lackadaisical....

Robert Tomlinson (62)
Sunday February 10, 2013, 6:20 pm
The only way we will truly recover is to have public financing of elections. If we continue having billion dollar elections it s just a matter of time before this republic is a thing of the past. It is time for the elected office holders to fear the electorate instead of the donors. It is time for us to demand real change. During the next election we need to ask candidates where they stand on public financing. We need for them to promise to sponsor or co sponsor public financing legislation. If they fail to do that we need for them to know that we will not support their candidacies in any way. All of you need to get active in your local political clubs, beginning early in 2014, and meet and ask the candidates the hard questions. For example, at our club many candidates visit and are eager to make speeches and answer questions one on one. We need to make sure the GOP loses power in the House and statewide elections, BUT we must make sure that those running as democrats will be working for us.

JL A (281)
Sunday February 10, 2013, 6:35 pm
Excellent comments here and a great article Kit!

The biggest factor is apathy of those that don't believe their work lives and the economic inequalities can improve no matter what--moving forward with breaking it apart into what seems possible to those who have been beaten down so they, too, will act is critical.

Christina G (11)
Sunday February 10, 2013, 7:09 pm
unions are great when they first start but then when they get successful & rich and powerful they get in bed with those they relate to - big business and work against the people, either their own or the public at large. Huge pension obligations, negotiated by the unions are bankrupting us all. Do those union pensions get cut back in hard times- no - the cutbacks come to the poorest, those on disability and social security. Thank the unions and their extreme demands...

Arielle S (313)
Monday February 11, 2013, 6:05 am
As J.L. says, it's the apathy that is concerning - too many have gotten into that rut where they assume life will go on as usual no matter what. By the time the rude awakening comes, it's too late. WAKE UP, everyone - this concerns you, if you're in a union or not, if you retired or not, if you are poor or not. If you do nothing, you have no right to complain later on....

Craig Pittman (52)
Monday February 11, 2013, 7:54 am
This is such a vital issue and one that may ultimately bring about a major change in the way we think about government. Income disparity continues to escalate and so too does the number of those disenfranchised. As the percentage of those represented by unions has dropped so to has wages and salaries. In our parents generation one parent per family easily earned enough to support a family. Now it takes both parents (unless you belong to the 1%) and many people work at more than one job. Fast food restaurants and many retail stores do not pay a living wage. With the upheavals in Wall Street it is the pension funds that took the hit not those that caused the crash. And then it was the taxpayers who had to pay for the bailouts while CEOs walked away with multi-million dollar golden parachutes. Mainstream media hypes the generous pensions negotiated by Unions and many of us take up that cry of fowl and yet where is the criticism of the billion dollar corporations that pay no health benefits nor a decent wage. There is a class system now in North America consisting of the upper class and the lower class. The middle class of better times is on its way down to join the lower class. The upper class have access to ivy league universities and private schools. Those in the lower class who do attend colleges are saddled with enormous student loan debts. The upper class live in gated communities with private security personnel to restrict access. The rest live in areas that suffer increased degradation of the infrastructure and social safety nets through so-called government austerity programs. So right Arielle we all need to WAKE UP and give our heads a shake. The system is not going to change on its own.

Sheryl G (360)
Monday February 11, 2013, 9:09 am
As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. Look at the charts.

However, as some have pointed out above, this is going to take a multi-pronged approach. The youth will have to get their heads out of he video games and start organizing, they have a long road ahead of them. I'd like to see a bit of fruitation of their efforts before I leave this world.

Mitchell D (87)
Monday February 11, 2013, 11:50 am
The rise of the 1%'s hold on wealth, got a serious boost from the Saint of the GOP, Ronald Reagan, whose legacy is so toxic to the American Dream, as to be virtually unspeakable. He engineered a huge redistribution of wealth upwards, started a decline in the clout of unions, when he went after the Air Traffic controllers, deregulated industries, helped destroy the Fairness Doctrine in broadcasting, which allowed the growth of the lunatic right-wing talk radio craze, brought the Evangelicals into politics, and on, and on.
The states that call themselves ":Right to Work" states are simply continuing the Reagan legacy, and feeding the Plutocrats at the top of the financial pecking order!


Mitchell D (87)
Monday February 11, 2013, 11:55 am
Speaking of Reagan,the man who famously, or infamously! said that he could find "no good reason to pay someone for thinking," I recommend you read "Idiot America, How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free," by Charles P. Pierce. It is a thorough review, and a quick read, of the dumbing down of America, aided and abetted by the religious right that Reagan and the 2nd Bush championed!

Nancy M (169)
Monday February 11, 2013, 1:14 pm
Great article Kit. The more the 1% keep us working hard and in multiple jobs to make ends meet, the more difficult it becomes for address these issues.

I have seen similar statistics before but what amazes me the most are the people who disregard such figures and by into the whole "trickel down" thing and defend those CEOs.

Past Member (0)
Monday February 11, 2013, 1:52 pm
The fairness doctrine, Glass/Stiegal and about 10 to 20 years to unscrew the minds of the fox culters.

Yvonne White (229)
Monday February 11, 2013, 2:16 pm
I still think pitchforks & "bonfires" are the only way from here..;) Though tar & feathers are more artistic..

Mary Donnelly (47)
Monday February 11, 2013, 3:20 pm
Thanks Kit--great post.

Birgit W (160)
Monday February 11, 2013, 3:48 pm

marie C (163)
Monday February 11, 2013, 4:36 pm
Thanks Kit

Angelika R (143)
Monday February 11, 2013, 6:42 pm
yes, great thought out article and equally great comments, also what Chris grace pointed out is true, unfortunately. Yet you need more unions and strenghten those that you have, no question.
I don't know if it is laziness or apathy, perhaps both, but the youth must be wakened and encouraged to action, that is so true!

Terrie Williams (798)
Tuesday February 12, 2013, 10:49 am
Yvonne........I've had my pitchforks honed and ready for ........ ya know....I've been ready for the last friggin decade! Had to use the feathers though.....the pillows needed refurbishing! :)

Gene J (290)
Tuesday February 12, 2013, 11:42 am
Great find, Kit. And oh, so, so true. "While many of these problems are real, I don't believe they explain what's really going on -- namely that unions and the rest of us are on the losing side of a gigantic class war.
The top one percent understands that unions are the only institution in America that stands in the way of the rich getting richer. As a result, the assault on unions has been deliberate and merciless."

What is PRICELESS about this event is that the moment you mention redistribution of wealth or that the 1% came out of the recesion unscathed, THEY start screaming class warfare. They look at a duck, call it a chicken and expect us to take their view without challenge, else it is class warfare. Well, maybe, just maybe, a violence free class war is what we NEED. They have far more than their share, there is more than enough for everyone to have a piece of pie, but not if a handful insist on having a whole pie to themselves at every meal. That is what they have beeing doing for 40 years now. Why is a law setting CEO salaries at no more than 200 times the lowest paid person in their company inequitable? The CEO still gets rich but everyone else gets a larger share of the pie too. That is the epitome of fairness, not class warfare, elementary fairness. We simply cannot let them control this debate and I recognize that is difficult because they control the media, but through organizing, even across countries (which is a great idea by the way), we can turn this skewed economic model on its ear and bring some semblance of fair play back into the picture. One would think even the 1% would recognize this, had they read any history at all, because every time things have gotten this far out of what, kings have lost their heads in the revolution this kind of inequity inevitably produces. Learn from history or die from it really are the only two options available. In the long run.

Lois Jordan (63)
Tuesday February 12, 2013, 2:11 pm
Noted. Hats off to National Nurses and their support of the Robin Hood Tax. Maybe we should have the movie, "Norma Rae" playing 24/7 to remind the people of the importance of unions. It is unfortunate that too often, the leaders make bargains with management that hurts workers and ignores their reasonable needs. Minimum wage has been stuck for too long; and many pensions and retirement accts. were severely diminished when Wall St. tanked. Wall St. hasn't paid the price for this, and it's well past time for that to happen.

Robert B (60)
Wednesday February 13, 2013, 7:13 am
The rich and powerful have an elaborate shell game going to screw us all. They use every trick in the book to keep us divided and looking the wrong way. Unions unite workers and now is the time for ALL of the 98% to concentrate and fight back. Lobbyists and Wall Street HAVE to be controlled.

Shirley B (5)
Wednesday February 13, 2013, 5:22 pm
Thank you Kit, for the post. And, Craig you are utterly right.
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